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Review: Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971)

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971)

Directed by: Mel Stuart

Premise: An adaptation of the book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl. The reclusive owner of a confectionary announces a contest in which five people will be given exclusive access to the inner workings of the factory. A poor young man dreams of winning.

What Works: In today’s movie marketplace there are a lot of fantasy titles from superhero movies to animated features to adaptations of young adult novels. And although a lot of these movies benefit from today’s advanced filmmaking technology it is rare to see a fantasy that charms the audience in the same way as Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. This is an example of a movie that benefits from the technological limitations of the period in which it was made and as a result it has a timeless look about it. This is a fantasy picture that takes place in a town that looks vaguely European in much the same way as the villages of Universal’s classic monster films like Frankenstein but the accents of the actors are all over the place. That mix doesn’t upset the film and actually enhances the fairytale quality. Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory features some terrific production design. The sets and costumes have a look that in the first half is just beyond reality and the second half demonstrates an impressive imagination in the tour of Willy Wonka’s factory. It isn’t simply that Willy Wonka was made practically instead of digitally, although that does give the picture a tactile look. The design of Wonka’s factory has such unusual spaces and features that it is an absurd and surreal place that plays to the cinematic form in a way more literal fantasy films don’t.  That’s best seen in the boat ride sequence that is a surreal nightmare unlike anything in today’s family movies. The unique look of Willy Wonka is enhanced by the wonderful music score by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley that includes numbers such as “Candy Man” and “Pure Imagination” as well as the many Oompa Loompa skits. Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory is also distinguished by its cast of child actors. Despite the change in the title, the film is primarily the story of Charlie, played by Peter Ostrum, a young boy from a poor family who dreams of a better life. Ostrum is likable and his earnestness is in contrast to the cynicism and awfulness of the rest of the characters. Among the children, Julie Dawn Cole stands out as Veruca Salt, a selfish brat of insatiable greed. But the performance that defines this movie is Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka. Wilder always had a dark and mischievous way about him and Willy Wonka is one of the classic matches of an actor and a role. There’s nothing quite like him in other fantasy movies. Gene Wilder’s Willy Wonka is actually a sinister figure whose wickedness is belied by his confections and goofy outfit. In fact, the movie has a mean spiritedness to it but that’s matched by a sense of justice.

What Doesn’t: There is a relevant criticism of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory that it is wish fulfillment for the economically oppressed. Without giving too much away, the story plays out like a fantasy of winning the lottery. This kind of conceit is seen in other movies like Slumdog Millionaire and the attending criticism is that this kind of fantasy encourages complacency among the oppressed as they wait for their golden ticket. As a movie whose primary audience is children, the picture does have a troubling implication insofar as it suggests that our dreams will become reality if we just want them bad enough. There is a subversive quality inherent to all Roald Dahl’s texts but this movie backtracks on it in its regard for Willy Wonka. In that respect Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory isn’t challenging in the way of fairytales like Animal Farm or The Fox and the Hound but nor are most family movies.

DVD extras: The single disc edition of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory includes featurettes, a commentary track, and a sing-along feature. The 40th Anniversary Collector’s Edition box set also includes the movie on multiple formats, a variety of swag, and the book Pure Imagination: The Making of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.

Bottom Line: Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory is a classic fantasy picture and it remains a unique film. It’s an imaginative fantasy that is also charming movie because of its strange mix of imagination and mischievousness and the contrast between its sweetness and the undercurrent of darkness. It also possesses one of Gene Wilder’s great performance.

Episode: #610 (September 4, 2016)